KTM 500 EXC | Dirt

Living the Dream

By Karel Kramer, Photography by Karel Kramer

They say: “It’s a blockbuster.”

We say: “Believe it.”

KTM’s 500 EXC wafts despair. Those who own one are blessed. The despair is felt by the engineers at competing factories and those riders who didn’t get a deposit to their dealer fast enough. The KTM is that good!

The 2011 KTM 530 EXC was at the top of the dirtbike-with-a-plate pile, but it pales in comparison to the 2012 model. Much of the improvement is in the engine. It maintains the bore and stroke of the 530 it replaces, but not much else. No more separate oil for the engine and transmission, so goodbye to fussy oil-change rituals. The engine is lighter than the 2011 thanks to new die-cast cases and internal systems simplification. For example, the balance shaft drives the water pump. A new, more nimble chassis uses the longer shock from the 2011 two-strokes for more travel. The fuel tank is designed to keep the weight of the gas lower and more centralized. The result is extremely rare: a fuel-injected machine that is actually lighter than the carbureted model it replaces. In fact, this street-legal dual-sport is lighter than some of KTM’s competition models!

Speaking of which, mechanically the EXC is identical to the XC-W competition off-road model. It even has the same exhaust, which KTM outfitted with a screen-type spark arrestor that muffles engine noise enough to pass sound tests without further restriction. Performance differs in a leaner ECU setting and hugely taller gearing. Meeting emissions standards has not taken a toll on power or rideability. There is some popping off-throttle thanks to air injected into the exhaust port, but it has no effect on performance.

On the trail, the bike feels light, nimble and powerful. Taller gearing means there’s little wheelspin. Every pony finds footing and shoves the bike forward in the trickiest traction—or at least it does with real tires on it—at all throttle openings.

Most off-road riders dream of the latest motocross weapon tuned for off-road. Reverse that thinking: Ryan Dungey’s current factory supercross bike is based on this enduro with the addition of a shock linkage. The 500 EXC doesn’t just handle and accelerate like that moto-conversion you dreamed of; it is the bike you dreamed of! While the EXC is light for the class, it feels even lighter than its claimed 270-lb. mass. Stability remains strong, but it has a shorter, quicker feel that craves tight and technical riding. We took this dual-sport on our most aggressive off-road trails and it shined.

This is a supremely effective street-legal dirtbike that feels like a racebike in the dirt. Unfortunately, it feels the same way on the pavement. It’s not smooth or comfortable, but that isn’t the point. Riders have been clamoring for a street-legal dirtbike, and the answer is loud and clear: The KTM 500 EXC is it.

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